7 Billion Stories and How to Hear Them

You don’t know what it’s like to lead a school through a global pandemic unless you’ve led a school through a global pandemic.

– a statement to which many of the leaders with whom I work will relate. And it speaks a wider truth: everyone on Earth has a unique pandemic story to tell. Tales of tragedy and transformation; of reflection, resilience or resignation; of anger, of loneliness; of division and unity; selfishness, cruelty and, thankfully, of kindness.

How to Tell a Story

Look to stories that have already been told to find the kind of narrative you need. Booker’s Seven Basic Plots (2004) is one of many frameworks that makes this easier. Booker analyses thousands of tales and argues for a meta-narrative that describes ‘story’ per se, together with 7 plots that keep on cropping up. Your story will be a combination of these seven motifs:

  • Overcoming the monster – defeating an evil force.
  • Rags to riches – gaining power, wealth, success; loosing it; getting it back.
  • Quest – setting out to acquire an important object; facing challenges and temptations.
  • Voyage and return – visiting a strange land; overcoming threats; returning changed.
  • Tragedy – a personal undoing because of a flaw or a mistake.
  • Comedy – concluding happily after twists, turns and misunderstandings.
  • Rebirth – changing ways (for the better) because of a significant event.

And these themes tell our shared, global story of the last 18 months as well: the quest for vaccines to overcome the devastation of COVID-19; the plot twists and muddles as politics, media, social media and science intertwine; and our rebirths as we return to a world changed forever.

How to Hear a Story

I joked recently with a group of specialist teachers I’m training in coaching skills that there are 5 different kinds of listening:

  • Active Listening – paying full attention to meaning.
  • Dialogic Listening – learning through conversation.
  • Discerning listening – gathering specific information.
  • Pub Listening – waiting for the other person to finish speaking so you can say the thing you wanted to say before they started.
  • Family Listening – two or more simultaneous monologues.

They all have their place but the first three offer real value to the speaker. If you’ve ever been able to just talk freely, confidentially, without judgement and without expectation; if you’ve been heard, really heard, by another person then you’ll know the power of that kind of exchange.

Telling your story and having it authentically heard can be affirming, healing and empowering.

Whose story will you hear? And to whom will you tell yours?

5 Stages of Remote Teaching

The good news is you’re probably already at stage 4. Here are the five:

  1. Stability
  2. Survival
  3. Innovation
  4. Opportunity
  5. Enrichment

And here’s what they look like:

1. Stability

Remember stability, clarity, security? Early 2020? Feels like decades ago don’t you think? The curriculum was known and effective. Things were generally clear. We knew what to do, how to do it and (if we had the time to think about it), why we bothered. Concerns were: Ofsted, Year 9 (or Year 6), and keeping the staff room cup-washing rota viable.

2. Survival

March 2020. We fell off a cliff. Chaos. Completely unknown territory. We had no idea at all what to do. The curriculum became erratic or non-existent. We couldn’t get to it because of two barriers:

Technical: How do we/they get online and what do we press when we get there?

Pedagogical: How do we do what we did so well in class when all we have is a tiny rectangle in which to do it?

3. Innovation

OK. So it wasn’t good, but after the shock we took a peek at the new landscape and began to play around with our new tools: Zoom, Teams, Google Classroom, Jamboard, Mentimeter, Desmos. We crossed into the curriculum by using the barriers within our lesson design – a bit of technical skill, a bit of remote pedagogy, a bit of the literacy. The new gold standard was not wall-to-wall live teaching but creative learning design.

4. Opportunity

And here we are now, February 2021, about to return to school. We’ve worked hard, we’re exhausted, but we’ve learned so much about learning – because we’ve had to. The barriers are significantly thinner. Well done you.

But how will we preserve our learning back in school? How will we use this opportunity we’ve had to grow personally and professionally?

5. Enrichment

So here’s my hope for the future. A richer curriculum. See the grey rings? That’s a legacy of the barriers. A reminder that struggle teaches, failure strengthens and frustration breeds success. The curriculum can be enriched because of this lengthy, uninvited and exhausting training course on which we’ve all been delegates: COVID-19

How well do these stages match your own experience? Did you miss any? Squeeze others in between? Linger too long? I hope we don’t ever go back to stage 1, but at least if we do, this time there’s a roadmap.

Why You Should Not Teach Live Lessons

Before COVID, we educators and trainers had this:

And then, early in 2020, we didn’t. All we had was this:

A rectangle. Our laptop screen, monitor, phone or tablet. The space in which we had to teach, to learn, to train, communicate, have fun.

And then, once we’d picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off, we made it work. Here’s what we did with our rectangles:

We opened up the world. We connected, we innovated, we created. We struggled, became frustrated and we persevered through fear, anger, and through a time of simply not knowing what to do – or how – and we got there.

But from the start, a dubious benchmark emerged. Teachers feared it, politicians didn’t understand it and parents used it as a yardstick (stick): The quality of online learning was sometimes judged – erroneously – by the quantity of live lessons.

Some folks embraced live teaching, others fought it – still do – but in my opinion the debate is mis-aligned. If we aspire to teach live online, replacing a day in school with a day on screen, then we miss a huge opportunity.

Puentadura’s model explains why. Aspiring to teach live is substitution. The professional focus is on replicating what you do in school. You’ll miss the vast opportunities that technology offers. You’ll not think to augment, modify or even redefine learning. You’ll fill your rectangle with the same pedagogy which pervaded your classroom.

I’m not saying don’t ever teach live. I’m saying that substitution is only the start of innovation. And if you want to improve your teaching, innovate with the tools that have come your way: Teams, Zoom, Connect, Blackboard, Basecamp, Slack, Padlet, Mentimeter, Desmos, Kialo-edu, Mural, Google Classroom, Remnote, Jamboard, GSuite Apps, Trello to name just 16.

Here’s the kind of blended approach I’m coming across in UK schools:

  • Confirm house rules and expectations (behaviour, interaction, technical).
  • Clarify risk assessment and safeguarding practices.
  • Begin the day with a live check-in and tasking session.
  • Set pupils to work, emphasizing the skills they’ll use to gain the knowledge required.
  • Open up themed breakout rooms where pupils can collaborate.
  • Open up a shared online space where learning is posted and where pupils get ideas.
  • Invite pupils to present their learning using a choice of five online platforms.
  • Schedule a short, interactive lecture from an expert in another part of the world.
  • Make yourself available for asynchronous chat support.
  • Take smaller groups aside for extra help, challenge or alternative provision.
  • Meet live at the end of the morning/afternoon to share work and to check out.

Please do teach live online if that’s your style or you’ve been directed to. But please don’t miss the wonderful opportunities to not teach live all the time that have appeared in our rectangles over the last year. Then maybe, when we do go back to school, vaccinated and resilient, we’ll be even better at what we do – adding value to the future.

www.thinkingclassroom.co.uk

Courses at Eventbrite

Four Words for 2021

I didn’t choose them; I heard them at a Gallup webinar last spring: Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope. The Gallup folks suggested businesses use each one to guide a pandemic response. Thinking Classroom had just lost 90% of its income and its biggest client (out of the blue; not related to COVID) and didn’t qualify for any government support. The advice was timely and meaningful.

Those four words saved the business; enabled it/me/us to look outwards instead of in, to look beyond close family, beyond extended family, past neighborhood, city, nation and out to our irrevocably connected world. Work shifted online, Zoom School started and food could be placed on the table.

May I humbly pass on these four words to you as guidance for the end of 2020 and support for the challenges and changes of 2021.

Trust

Choose who you trust and explore your trust in them. The politician, the scientist, the journalist; the mathematician, the social commentator, the influencer; the friend, the family member, the child. Pause and think before you judge; before you form and crystallize an opinion. And then consider yourself; your integrity, your intent, your actions. Find the trustworthiness there. If you see it, others will too.

Compassion

The pandemic has laid bare our values, beliefs and personalities. It’s accelerated and amplified what was already present. Maybe you’ve been shocked by behaviours of friends and family? By their interpretation of social rules and its difference to your own understanding? Maybe you’ve been empowered by extreme acts of love and care, seen first hand or in the media. Maybe you need to cut someone a little slack, or have it cut for you. Maybe walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins might not be such a bad idea right now.

Stability

When everything changes what remains? What is left, left for you? An object? A memory? A person? Where is your anchor? Seek out the music, the poetry, the film and TV, the books the photographs, the recollections and the words which, for you, are timeless. Build your own stability from this raw material then help others to do the same.

Hope

This will pass. Maybe not when or how you want it to, but it will pass. Hope is not about wishing for this to end or about demanding a return to normal. Hope is a quiet, almost silent confidence that’s heard once the noise fades. Hope is a state of being, a way of believing in the present just as much as in the future.

Trust, compassion, stability, hope. Please pass them on.

How to Blend Learning #1

The ‘blended’ in ‘blended learning’ means combining in-class with online teaching. It can be synchronous (live) or asynchronous. It’s touted as one way to be lockdown ready. I propose it’s the only way to be 21st century ready.

It’s not something to do ‘while we get through this’. It’s a permanent redefinition of learning. What it offers is long overdue: a necessary kick start to finally break from the educational practices that fuelled the first Industrial Revolution, to fully prepare students for the demands of the fourth. We need to get this right.

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

There are three ways to come at blended learning:

1. Plan learning for in-class then transform it to work online.
2. Plan learning for online then transform it to work in-class.
3. Integrate all learning spaces then plan the learning.

Embarking on 1 and 2 risks a frustrating ‘good enough’ short-termism. 3 lays deep foundations where learning is central, not the tools or methods of its delivery.

1. Planning an in-class lesson to work online prompts the search for web tools that will replicate face to face activities. This will only ever partially succeed. In-class will never be the same as online. We’ll never achieve the full authenticity of a classroom where we’re all breathing the same air.

2. Likewise, planning an online lesson to work in-class is equally doomed. The range and flexibility of web tools cannot be replicated in the ‘real’ world. Online collaboration, editing, access to information, creativity – these and more are in a completely different league to their in-class counterparts.

3. The third approach separates learning from the debate about online vs in-class. It challenges us to take a different, long term view:

Think big about how and where learning happens.
Take time to bring your philosophy of learning to life.

1 and 2 fuss about which mug to use. 3 considers the quality of the coffee.

Places where learning can take place are combined into a whole. School, library, bus, bedroom, street, in-class, online. Learning doesn’t stop with a school bell or start with a log on.

Online happens to be a place where we can collaborate and create. In-class happens to be a place where high quality discussion takes place. Research in the library; debriefs on the bus; texting in the street. Learning is bigger than school and bigger than online.

Effective learning is independent of the tools or spaces used to bring it to life. We all have a philosophy of learning. Mine cites eight evidence-based features that underpin learning design:

  • Relationships
  • Visual Thinking
  • High Order Thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Self-efficacy
  • Feedback
  • Active Learning
  • Peer Teaching

These are not tied to a room or a screen. We can build learning relationships online and face to face; we can think visually at a screen or in a forest; feedback can be verbal, written, emailed, texted or videoed.

Don’t get caught in the twin traps of, ‘How do I make this work online?’ or ‘How do I make this work in-class?’ Instead ask, ‘What is my philosophy of learning? Which principles work best?’ Then, looking at all the tools and resources and places and spaces available to you and your pupils ask, ‘How do I bring this philosophy to life?’

Thinking Classroom resources from September 2020 will help you to do this.

Knowledge is Dead. Long Live Knowledge.

I’m walking in the country with R. It’s a professional catch up. Executive coaching. (Coaching walks really work, try them). We’ve each got a Starbucks, black Americano, 4 shots. The sun is out, the air is clear.

We cut through bushes and emerge to find 40 beech trees spaced evenly and set in two parallel lines – just over 2 meters apart – stretching left and right. The trunks are too wide for us to reach around; they must be 150-200 years old. Looking up, the canopy is pastel green and sunlight washes through.

There is intent here, there is purpose. Someone, along time ago, decided to plant these trees – right here and in parallel lines. A car would fit between them and maybe, when the trees were younger, two carts could pass.

The trees are on a ridge. To the east is an ancient track, to the west an abandoned military camp. Neither offer any clues but our curiosity is peaked. We want to know – need to know – who planted these trees, when they did it and why.

We ask a man walking his dog. He doesn’t know. A phone search brings up nothing. As experienced educators it’s unspoken that neither of us will now rest until we have this knowledge. This is necessary knowledge.

We plan some blended, lockdown-ready learning for R.’s primary learners:

  1. Study trees. Become beech experts. Have 10 key facts to hand. Learn through expert lectures, online research, reading. Be ready.
  2. Visit ‘Beech Avenue’ (school visit or streamed live). Apply your knowledge. Come at the task visually, linguistically, existentially, mathematically, alone, in groups.
  3. Get creative. If you walk the full length of Beech Avenue, where will you be transported? If the trees talk when we leave, what will they say? What have these trees seen?
  4. Develop the absolute best question you can about Beech Avenue.
  5. Back at school, or at home, seek out local history experts. Zoom Q&A. Locals who’ve moved away are now within reach.
  6. Present learning live, online, face to face – whatever works best.
  7. Review the project. What do we now know and how does it connect to what we already knew and want to know next? How will we remember it? What skills did we need? What attitudes did we need for this?

COVID has forced us online. It’s forced us to consider how we teach.

If you taught in ‘way A’ before lockdown, you’ll probably seek out tools online to teach in ‘way A’. If you taught in ‘way B’ before lockdown, likewise, you’ll seek out tools online to teach in ‘way B’.

What if online offers way C? What are going to do?

The majority of the children whose futures you are nurturing will be alive when the years begin with ’21’. We’re going to need a pretty strong evidence base to continue to use teaching methods that dominated when the years started with ’19’ or even ’20’.

Let’s make the future work:

ZoomConTwo: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/113956159942

A One-Line Recovery Curriculum

It’s a question. A single question.

It’s not this: What was your best experience in lockdown?

It’s not this: What was your worst experience during lockdown?

Nor is it any of these: What have you lost, gained, what’s changed? What are your challenges, threats, opportunities, hopes, fears? What did you do, feel, think, say?

No, the 12-word recovery curriculum question is this:

Which of those questions do you least want to answer and why?

Try it. You’ll find that children and adults alike begin to talk about what’s most important to them. It’s a respectful route to a meaningful conversation.

By all means buy the catch-up and recovery resources; design them yourself; attend the training; write the curriculum; ask the experts; address the emotional and intellectual catch up.

But at the end of the day, however you do this, it’ll depend on your relationships; on your ability to let your children tell their stories; on your willingness to empathise with them, and on your capacity to authentically hear them as they speak.

Start with the 12-word question and take it from there.

Elizabeth and her Kids

Eventually I decided to invite Elizabeth to my online Zoom training. She’d given birth to twin boys in May but was happy to bring them along. She’s not sure where their father is at the moment. Most of the other delegates laughed when she logged on. But that didn’t surprise me; you’ve not seen Elizabeth. She didn’t say anything and only stayed for five minutes. I’ve not seen her since but I did email afterwards to see if she was OK – and to say how much we valued her visit.

Elizabeth is a four-year-old goat. She lives at Cronkshawfold Farm in Lancashire, UK and for £5.99 she’ll come to your online meeting. On the face of it, a novelty, a welcome relief among 200 lockdown Zoom calls. But also a gift to the wonderful educators in the training session:

Our 5-year-olds would love this during teacher check-in.
We could show our own pets.
We could build a STEM lesson on this (see below)
We could invite neighbourhood professionals for a Q&A.
We could get our friends to show the view from their windows – in Ohio, Dubai, Skye, Nairobi

We could show an object close up and slowly zoom out.
We could, we could, we could….

Elizabeth (and her two kids) kick started our creativity with their perfect innovation. Perfect in my eyes because her fee helps fund Cronkshawfold’s purchase and installation of renewable technologies. A loss transformed to a gain – see previous post here.

www.thinkingclassroom.co.uk

The Same Sun

Photo by ros dagos on Unsplash

I’m in my 178th Zoom meeting since lockdown. For once I’m not the host. I can enjoy this one in a different way. Twelve of us are arranged neatly on the screen: F from Nairobi, W is in Idaho, B North Carolina and S from what looks like a studio flat in Sweden. Others call in from Germany, Denmark and the UK.

It’s 1930 BST. The sun is bright and yellow and low. It cuts in through my office window and hides half my face. On screen I’m very film noir, like most close up shots in Blade Runner.

This is relaxing. The conversation flows. It’s guided well by W and in a Zoom reverie I suddenly notice the sun’s presence for everyone else. It’s on their cheek, or hair, or it’s behind them, or streaming in through their own windows.

I have to say this: ‘Folks, can you see the sunlight where you are? Can you feel it on your face or your back? Do you feel its warmth? Can you see it in these twelve tiny rectangles in front of us all? It’s the same sun isn’t it?! We’re under the same sun. We can point to the same sun.’

Twelve people disengage from their laptop cameras. Their heads raise a little, their eyes focus elsewhere, to the sunlight. We have turned away from each other but towards the sun.

We are connected in a completely different way. From our disparate locations we are now all looking towards exactly the same place.

Photo by Sam Marx on Unsplash

COVID-19 Back to School

I must share this with you; the unedited words of a teacher of just 4 years speaking from her heart; yet speaking pragmatically (14 ideas below) and, I hope, helpfully as we start to contemplate our ‘what nexts’:

Multiple Solutions to Future Worries

Anxiety is a funny thing. I guess as human beings we are known to be creatures of habit. During the first few weeks of lockdown, my anxiety was awful. My routine went. My habits were gone. I hated the idea of simply not being busy; not being in work – not having a set of goals to achieve and not seeing my friends and family. I have always been someone who thrives from being busy and being surrounded by people so when lockdown was announced, I felt lost, totally lost.

However, after a few weeks into lockdown life and with support from a coach provided by my headteacher, I soon began to get into the ‘Lockdown routine.’ I found ways to keep my anxious brain busy – running, reading, playing board games, mindful colouring in, walks and staying in touch with loved ones over the phone.

When my coach asked me a week ago how I would feel if we were told that schools were back open on Monday (hypothetically) and lockdown was over, I felt that familiar tightening of the chest and that unwelcome knot of anxiety was back in the pit of my stomach. I was able to list off my future worries and without realising, I verbally started sharing solutions to these hypothetical problems.

So I have decided to share my ‘future worries’ about returning to ‘reality’ in the hope that it could help you in some way.

Children struggling with social distancing

• Take the children outside and remodel the 2m rule using a metre stick. Reiterate to the children why keeping 2m apart from one another is important and how it makes a huge difference to ourselves and to all those around us. Reassure the children that social distancing won’t last forever and we need to show love, courage and trust by following these safety rules.

Praise children for following social distancing rules through verbal praise, stickers, vision points, etc.

• Ask the children to be creative and come up with their own strategies to help themselves and others to remember the 2m rule.

• Liaise with leadership if strategies are not successful and further advice/guidance is needed.

Wellbeing of the children

• Liaise with parents/guardians


• Seek support from leadership and DSLA’s.


• PSHE discussions with the class linked to feelings.

• Share own feelings with the class, explain that any emotion/s that they are feeling are okay and it’s how we deal we these emotions that is the most important thing.

• Share with children what I have been worried about (the things I’m writing about here) and how I have spent time thinking of how to find solutions to each of my worries – this activity could help show the children that you are showing trust by sharing your feelings with them so that they can share their worries too. Together you could then find multiple solutions to their present/future worries.

Children forgetting everything you’ve taught them

• Instead of focusing on what has been forgotten, focus on what has been learnt. Share and celebrate with children what new skills they might have learnt/developed during lockdown, e.g. baking, cooking, gardening, etc.

• Reflect with children what we are now even more thankful for now more than ever – school! – seeing our teachers/friends, family being safe and healthy. Get them to order what the most important things to us were before corona and what they are now – has anything changed, reflect on why.

• Share and celebrate home learning with the children and for those who haven’t been able to talk about what they are looking forward to the most now we are back in school.

Well-being of colleagues being low

• Redirect conversations away from COVID19 – Talk to one another about what positive things we have been doing to stay busy, e.g. baking, cooking, getting into fitness again, etc. Discuss what we are now looking forward to again.

• Be the one to bring the positive energy to the team – SMILE! But also know that it is okay to not be okay and to have key members of staff who you feel comfortable to go to.

REMEMBER!

If these strategies don’t have the desired effect, instead of blaming yourself saying,

‘I did this wrong’ or

‘that teacher is better than me because their children are better or they seem to be OK’,

rephrase the situation t
o,

‘that wasn’t the outcome I expected.’

From this you can remain positive and explore further solutions/seek additional support.

Holly Longley is a primary school teacher working in Hampshire, currently responsible for a Year 2 class. She’s offering her reflections here to help you think through the next few weeks and months. Whether her specific ideas work for you and your pupils is not the whole story. Holly’s advice is about the how as much as the what: Rather than stew on your future worries, write them down now and address them now. Be reflective. Be creative. Be ready.